Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Ultimate Get Away From It All 

William Pene du Bois' The Twenty-One Balloons 

No matter how many bookmarks I buy - and I buy them by the pack - I can never get my hands on one when I need it.  So I am very grateful to the individual(s) at my local public library for providing a consistent supply of different booklist bookmarks, conveniently located next to the self-checkout stations.

This past week's bookmarks featured a booklist on Microhistory: A Social History of Just One Thing.  Some of the books I've read: Kurlansky's Salt: A World History, Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, Barry's The Great Influenza, and Krakauer's Into the Wild. All great reads, and I'd recommend every one of them.  Others on the list I've yet to read, including Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, by Simon Winchester. 

Winchester's book caught my eye because it happens to be the setting for Pene du Bois The Twenty-One Balloons. What are the odds of reading a children's book set in Krakatoa (or even the fact that one exists) and then that very same week picking up a bookmark referencing that very place? It's like buying a new car that's bright blue and all of a sudden noticing that every other car on the road is bright blue also. I'm sure there's a name for this phenomenon, or maybe not. I tend to over think.

Either way, the appearance of the word Krakatoa twice in the same week must be a portent (in the archaic sense), so here is today's review of William Pene du Bois' The Twenty-One Balloons.

Book #35: The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois (1947), illustrated by the author.  180 pages.

Professor William Waterman Sherman has spent the past forty years teaching mathematics in a school for boys in San Francisco, California, and at the beginning of the story is feeling every minute of those years. With the freedom of retirement looming on the horizon, Professor Sherman begins to take the necessary steps to fulfill a long simmering ambition of sailing the world in a balloon for one solid year. Alone.

The man wants his privacy.

Ballooning has been all the craze in the thirty years since the end of the Civil War, and Professor Sherman has been an avid follower of the sport. He joined the local Explorer's Club in San Francisco. He studied, planned, tested and retested various designs, finally settling on a variation of the plans of the great French balloonists Giffard and Nadar, and their balloons the Clou. and the Geant.  Sherman gave his design to the Higgin's Balloon Factory, and named the final product the Globe.

On August 15th, with little fanfare other than a small article in the back pages of the newspaper, Sherman set off on what he hoped would be a year-long journey across the globe, traveling where ever the winds might carry him. Alas, it was not to be, for on the seventh day the balloon was damaged by an errant seagull and the professor found himself stranded on a tropical island of a very special kind.

Krakatoa, a volcanic island located in the Sunda Strait of Indonesia.

And he wasn't alone.

When Sherman came to, he was greeted by a gentleman in a white morning suit wearing a white cork bowler.  After offering the badly sunburnt professor a similar suit of clothing, along with a set of cufflinks made from four diamonds the size of lima beans, he introduces himself as Mr. H., and explains that unknown to the outside world, the island is inhabited by a group of specially selected families, all of whom support themselves through the periodic sale of diamonds to other countries.

Discovered by a shipwrecked sailor, the diamond mines - truly wondrous to behold - are immense, and capable of supporting the families in opulent style for the rest of their lives. Mr. H takes the professor back to his own mansion, and informs him that he will now need to think of himself as a permanent guest of the island, since the families cannot risk disclosure by allowing him to leave.

During the next few days, the professor learns more of the history of the inhabitants and their manner of living, focusing on exotic architecture, foods, a novel calendar and the unusual education of their children.  The professor also adapts physically to the periodic disruptions of the surface of the island, the result of underground volcanic activities.

When queried by Sherman as to an exit plan in the event of a volcanic eruption, the residents inform him of their plan.  Should an eruption threaten, they have constructed a huge raft, to be lifted skyward via balloons, that will carry them, along with a stock of diamonds, to other lands where they can resettle.  Not that they are particularly concerned; as they informed the professor, the volcano has been dormant for over 200 years, after all.

When Krakatoa erupts, everyone rushes to the balloon raft, and, after a harrowing near-failure to rise, escapes.  All save the professor have a parachute, so he is left to last on the raft, descending into the Atlantic Ocean, where he is eventually saved after being spotted by a passing freighter en route to New York City.

Back home, the professor is returned, with great fanfare, to San Francisco via the Presidential train, and, after being carried to the Explorer's Club and placed in a bed on stage, and recounts the above tale to a breathless audience. At the conclusion of his speech, the professor is asked about his future plans.  He replies that he intends to have another balloon built, a Globe the Second, a seagull resistant one, and spend a year floating around the world. And just how will he finance such an expedition?

With the sale of a single pair of cufflinks.

Balloons was a bit of a slow go at the beginning, but really picked up the pace once the professor took to the air.  I learned a great deal about ballooning, a topic on which I was totally ignorant, and of course that lead to a healthy dose of non-fiction reading up on the subject. Giffard and Nadar are real people, fascinating people, and they and their balloons were quite the sensation in their day.

The eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 is well-documented, and resulted in the deaths of over 35,000 people. It was an event that was literally felt around the globe. For a brief history, go to this link at

21 Balloons turned out to be a fun read, and I can see older intermediate and middle-school kids enjoying the book. The author's writing style is more adult than geared for children - an example of an author who writes books that children can read versus an author who writes specifically for children. As far as the illustrations, they fit the tale, but I personally preferred his scenery versus his people, who came off as stiff and with slightly diabolical expressions. To each his own.

Like many older books, there are instances throughout the book that come off as dated/unfortunate. There is a scene involving a generic American Indian where the individual expresses himself in Hollywood Indian speak - easy enough to revise, and a reference to a Negro clown performing at the London Music Hall - again, easy to fix if the will/legalities are all in place. Penne du Bois died in1993. Hopefully whoever controls his estate would be open to the idea.

(I see that Amazon sells a 1986 edition of the book.  My version is older, so if anyone reading this has read this newer printing, I'd love to know if it includes any revisions.)

Link to The Twenty-One Balloons at

William Pene Sherman du Bois was born in 1916 in Nutley, NJ but spent most of his life in France. He served in the army during World War II, and also served as a correspondent for Yank magazine. After the war, he continued to write and illustrate his own books, as well as illustrate books for other authors such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Edward Lear, and Rumer Godden.  He was the first art director for The Paris Review starting in 1953.

In 1948, he won the Newbery Medal for The Twenty-One Balloons, and was twice a runner-up as an illustrator for the Caldecott Medal.

Penne du Bois wrote or illustrated over twenty-five books during his lifetime.  As always, whenever I review one book by an author, I end up adding more books by the same author to my list of books that I want to read/review. It's a long list. Several that look particularly interesting to me here are The Lion, Lazy Tommy Pumpkinhead  (part of an uncompleted series on the Seven Deadly Sins), Squirrel Hotel, and Gentleman Bear.

He died in 1993 at the age of 76 of a stroke in Nice, France.

Read his obituary in The New York Times

William Pene du Bois' papers at the New York Public Library.

William Pene du Bois' papers at the University of Minnesota Libraries.


  1. I loved this when I was a child 4 decades ago. The racist bits made no impact on me. I would not recommending changing those, but adding a publisher's note instead, to newer editions.

    I love the author's other works. Recently I found a copy of Giant, which is a tiny bit like Indian in the Cupboard but backwards. It was a kick, with a kick....

  2. The Carle Museum in Amherst, MA is having an exhibition of his work opening in December.

    A Taste for Adventure: The Art of William Pène du Bois
    December 15, 2015 - May 1, 2016